Visiting Hours is an odd entry into the over-satiated slasher subgenre of the 1980's. This import from Canada directed by Jean-Claude Lord feels different than other slashers. Probably because it deals with adults rather than teens, and the plot seems like something out of the type of scary scenario that DePalma made famous in films like Dressed to Kill rather than some boring stalk and slash. The film definitely feels like a Canadian production as the horror is far more cerebral here than anything being released at the time in this subgenre, and that can clearly be seen by the imprint of producer Pierre David who was the man partly responsible for the David Cronenberg horror entries The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome. Visiting Hours may not set the genre on fire with its originality (for how different the film feels, it still relies heavily on lame slasher tropes like false scares and over-sustained cat-and-mouse chase sequences), but it's an interesting entry into an otherwise monotonous subgenre.
Ever since I was a little kid I can vividly remember the poster art for this film, with its lighted-up hospital building in the shape of a skull, and thinking that Visiting Hours would be a pretty cool horror movie to watch one day. I'm surprised it took me nearly 10 years to watch it. The film was released in 1986 on the tail end of the slasher craze. At this point it was overkill (sorry for the pun) as Jason and Michael and Freddy were well into their fourth or fifth installments. The only interesting thing to come out of the genre at this point was being produced in Italy. In 1987 both Dario Argento's Opera and Michele Soavi's brilliant Stagefright would stand as the punctuation mark as the last worthwhile entry into the subgenre (until Wes Craven would get all postmodern on us with New Nightmare); so, it seems odd that Visiting Hours, a film not really a slasher in the sense that it wasn't gore-focused like what the Italians were doing, and it's not really dumb enough to be considered a wholly American slasher, would attempt to Canadianize this particular genre. Oh, the Canadains have walked these halls before (most notably Bob Clark's uber-influential slasher Black Christmas), but Visiting Hours is more Cronenberg than Craven, dealing partly with the psychological horror of the killer while placing its characters and their situations amidst the most cliche of slasher tropes.
The film opens with Jeffrey Goldsmith's minimalist score reminding one of the simplistic, eerie qualities of Carpenter's Halloween theme. We're introduced to Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), a feminist news reporter who chastises, on air, a lawyer who fails to see her side of the argument on the issue of an abused wife who murdered her husband. Her producer and lover (William Shatner!) is concerned about her disregard for what the station obviously cannot air. However, she has bigger problems as her outburst incites a crazy janitor named Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside) who takes it upon himself to stalk Deborah and attack her in her home, leading to a tense scene that is a rare example of the director Lord understanding the logistics and logic in what makes a "stalk and slash" scene suspenseful.
At this point we have what seems to be just your basic thriller with some slasher elements; however, the film – and especially the aesthetic seen in the film's opening attack in Deborah's home – turns into a full-fledged slasher once Deborah is taken to the hospital and finds that Colt is still stalking her. Of course, like any good slasher, Colt must make a few detours, terrorizing and killing innocent women on his way to finish off Deborah. These detours – and the way they completely drag the film down and make no qualms about being scenes of obvious padding – are so horribly constructed that for slasher fans we feel right at home, but for fans of creepy, psychological giallo-like horror films, these detours distract form what is obviously meant to be something more than the glut of slasher flicks that littered theaters and video shelves throughout the 80's.
The character of Colt Hawker seems like something out of a more sophisticated, cerebral horror film as the director Lord decides to keep him clearly in site for the length of the film. This isn't like your typical slasher film killer where we are left to guess who is doing the killing; no, Lord and co. are more interested in the terror of knowing who is coming after you, and the filmmakers do a great job of keeping the chase scenes taut and intense. However, one of the film's major flaws is its absurd pacing. For some reason the film felt the need to ratchet up the pace during scenes that needed more establishing shots than they did frenetic music and cutting. Often there will be a character being chased and we won't have any idea where they are, and other times we'll see a character running around a building or a house and the pace of the scene will have about ten different peaks…it was just so confusing because for a lot of the film – especially with the film's villain – everything seemed to be executed as well as one would expect with a film like this.
Horrible editing aside, Visiting Hours is worth checking out if you're in the mood for something that isn't wholly awful and predictable like most slasher films tend to be. It has an interesting aura surrounding it as it's more of a tweener film, teetering between slasher and psychological thriller. There's a couple standout chase scenes, one at the beginning of the film in Deborah's apartment, and one tense-as-hell scene at the end that takes place in the bowels of the hospital. These scenes are well paced with their scares (they are the exception) and know when when to drown out the hokey slasher music, allowing the silence to loom over the scene and create great tension through minimalist effects. It's moments like these that reminded me more of the aforementioned Stagefright rather than the tired old retread of another slasher that takes place in a hospital (read: Halloween II).
The acting is really good here for a horror film as Academy Award winner Lee Grant gives depth to the characterization of Deborah. Grant plays her role as someone who is not just a one-note feminist character that is begging for her comeuppance (which is amazing for a horror film from the 80's since most of these directors loved to lash out against women); instead, Deborah is a strong character who understands the peril she's in and must overcome her pacifism to kill her enemy. Rarely do you get a legitimate actress acting in a horror movie, and Grant plays terrified better than most. Shatner does his Shatnerisms in a pretty limited role, and Linda Purl is quite good as the Final Girl (really she shares that role with Grant), Sheila Monroe, a nurse at the hospital who is a big fan of Deborah's views and asks to specifically care after her, which of course only leads to her and her children being put in harm's way. The real star here, though, is Michael Ironside as Colt. Colt is your typical killer in a film like this – a man who was abused by both parents and takes out his disturbed rage on women – and Ironside plays the character with the kind of maniacal gusto that makes movies like this somewhat memorable. It's really a creepy performance, and it's one of the main reasons to see this movie.
Despite the popular Canadian cast, Visiting Hours is a mostly forgotten slasher, really only being remembered for being one of the later editions to the infamous "Video Nasty" list. Cuts were made (two minutes worth) to the original version Lord's film, and I honestly have no idea whether or not the DVD by Anchor Bay (which is a damn fine transfer) is the full uncut version. I don't think it makes a huge difference as this isn't something like The Burning or The Prowler that relies on its gory infamy for a reputation; no, Visiting Hours is just proof that the DPP was going batshit insane with power when adding movies to their "Nasty" list. Visiting Hours will most likely disappoint gore hounds (the most violent image of the film is where Colt smashes a beer bottle on a kitchen counter and rubs his arm in the shards) as there are some brief stabbings and some life support machines being unhooked, but that's really the only kind of onscreen killing you see.
But the deaths aren't what make Visiting Hours a worthwhile viewing...what makes the film so appealing is the unseen horror and terror and the way the film can sustain a sense of unease throughout when its editors aren't mucking the whole thing up with bizarre cutting and sequencing choices. Yes, the editing is horrible and often you have no idea logistically where you are during certain scenes (which can also be blamed on the direction by hack filmmaker Lord, who would later go on to make the awful sci-fi/horror film The Vindicator), but the performances and the way the screenplay by Brian Taggert seeks to elevate the material above most of the average slashers being released at the time makes Visiting Hours a pretty good, and somewhat forgotten, horror film of the late 80's.